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Breakthrough Leadership: A Live Q&A with Fast Company’s Jon Gertner and Chuck Salter

What makes some people compelling leaders while others fall short? Join our live chat at 12pm (ET) on Wednesday, January 29th.

For nearly 20 years, Fast Company has taken readers inside the world’s most successful and innovative companies with the goal of sharing what you can learn from them, particularly at pivotal moments, when leaders and business models are tested. In our latest ebook, Breakthrough Leadership: Winning Strategies from Amazon, Twitter, J.Crew, and Other Cutting-Edge Companies, we’ve put together some of our most instructive leadership stories.
 
Join a live Q&A this Wednesday at noon with Fast Company editor-at-large Jon Gertner, who contributed stories on Starbucks and Tesla to the collection, and senior writer Chuck Salter, who edited the anthology. They’ll be discussing how Tesla’s Elon Musk handles countless obstacles starting an electric car company, a monumental task and a major test for Silicon Valley. They’ll also dig into Howard Schultz’ revival of Starbucks.
 
The underlying question in these and the other stories in Breakthrough Leadership is this: What makes some people compelling leaders while others fall short?
 
Join Gertner and Salter in conversation right here at 12pm on Wendesday, January 29. You can start submitting your questions using the “Make a comment” box below.
 
Breakthrough Leadership is available for download in Apple’s iBookstore as well as on Amazon’s Kindle store and other retail outlets.
  • Hey, everybody, we’re going to get started in five minutes with today’s live chat with Fast Company editor-at-large Jon Gertner. Send us your questions. And you can download our new book, Breakthrough Leadership, from AmazonApple, or the Fast Company store
  • Welcome to today’s live chat. I’m joined by my colleague, Jon Gertner, who contributed two stories to our latest anthology, Breakthrough LeadershipWhen we cover companies, we visit them at pivotal moments, when their ideas and strategies are tested. That’s when you see the most compelling leadership.  So Jon, when you wrote about Tesla, what were the main challenges facing CEO Elon Musk at the time?
  • When I visited Tesla at the end of 2011, the Model S -- Tesla's new flagship electric car -- was just about to go on the assembly line. So it was a fraught moment for the company. Essentially everything Musk and his colleagues had built (the factory, the team, the processes) were at risk. And the financial investment, too, was enormous. Musk was making predictions for the Model S's first-year sales that he thought were reasonable -- something in the neighborhood of 20,000, as I recall. But a lot of automotive commentators were saying he was out of his mind. They saw electric cars as a business waiting to fail. The world simply wasn't ready.

    Of course, it has turned out pretty well for Tesla and Musk. But at that particular moment in time there was no telling how things would go. What was clear to me, at the very least, was that Musk was utterly confident not only in his product (the Model S) but the entirely strategy that he had spent years devising. The naysayers bothered him -- not just the critics in the automotive press but people who were shorting Tesla's stock, and essentially betting that Tesla would fail. But I also think that level of skepticism only drove Musk harder. He was sure he was right. And soon the world would see why.
  • Sounds like the perfect time to see Musk. What are the main things you think that other executives and entrepreneurs can learn from him in terms of how to get a startup off the ground, particularly one facing so many challenges? 
  • While we wait for Jon's response, here's what the a look at the new eBook, Breakthrough Leadership!

  • Good question. Sometimes I've wondered if Musk's combination of drive, technical knowledge, and stamina -- and also his willingness to essentially bet everything on an idea—make him a bit unique in terms of entrepreneurs. But I still think there are things worth learning. First is that if you think you have a good idea that solves an enormous problem for the world (clean energy, clean driving, cheaper space exploration) put everything you have into it. Second is never, never, never give up. Third is hire the best people you possibly can and give them room to do their best work and make sure that your quest becomes their quest, too. Because none of Musk's companies have succeeded because of Musk alone. His teams made them happen.
  • We've got a question from a reader that touches on the tough early days for a startup like Tesla.
  • Hi Jon and Chuck! When you were getting to know these leaders, did any common themes emerge in how they dealt with criticism along the way?
  • On the subject of Elon Musk and Tesla, here's something to watch in between Jon's answers: Car and Driver's review of the 2013 Tesla Model S.

  • I think both Elon and Howard Schultz (which is also in the Breakthrough Leadership book) have developed pretty thick skin. They're often lauded by the press and the public. But they're constantly criticized, too. I do think it's worth pointing out, though, that different kinds of critics come at them from different angles. To use the example of Tesla, there were critics of the company's financial model, as well as critics of the company's technology. I thought in both those cases Musk was relentless and patient in countering doubters. But we also saw him tested more recently -- after a recent New York Times story questioned the range of Tesla's battery; and by car fires that affected a few Model S vehicles that were involved in crashes.

    Musk decided to confront both of those instances head on. I think he was less convincing in countering the Times story than he was in countering the negative press of the car fires. In the latter, he used a slew of data to change the impression that these cars were more dangerous than gas-powered vehicles. But certainly we could see in both instances that he didn't shrink from fighting for his product. He was going to defend it any way possible.
  • Some people call Musk a modern-day Thomas Edison. Jon, you’re in a unique position to assess that comparison. You wrote the definitive book on Bell Labs, Edison’s creation. What do you think? 
  • Also, from a bit earlier in the conversation: Jon and Chuck answering your questions from Fast Company HQ.

  • I've heard the Musk-Edison comparisons and really I have to be honest: I don't really get them. It's not that I elevate one of these men above the other (although it's difficult, admittedly, to best Thomas Edison as an inventor). It's just that the world of technology and innovation are so different today than they were 50 or 100 years ago that the comparisons seem moot. If you go see Edison's old laboratory in West Orange, NJ (which I highly recommend) you get the sense of an incredible tinkerer who worked with a small band of fellow travellers in a fairly isolated world.
  • If you go see the Tesla factory in Fremont, California, or the Tesla offices in Palo Alto, it feels like a different world, because it is. And while it's true that this company is led by a visionary who works 80 hours a week (kind of like Edison) I just think his goals, his means, and his talents are different.
  • In another piece in the book, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo remarks what a strange and at times awful job CEO is. He says no one is ever truly prepared for it. You leap in and learn as you go. Which a lot of CEOs don’t talk about. Did Musk discuss how he learned to run Tesla? After all, he was a technologist, not an executive.
  • We talked a bit about that. And in fact, he spoke about how he often chats with his friend Larry Page (of Google). As Musk put it: "I’ve actually had these comical conversations with him: What do you think are good ways to manage companies?"
  • But then Musk said: "I think a lot of it is just common sense. It’s not some sort of faddy thing. It’s make sure you hire great people and that there’s nothing impeding them in the organization from fulfilling their full potential. Make sure there’s good communication; that people aren’t afraid to say what’s on their mind. That people focus on creating great products and services and not on any internal political fighting [and that it's] an environment where people look forward to coming to work. If are people looking forward to coming to work and are reluctant to leave, that is necessarily going to create a better company."

    I think that's a helpful window on how he thinks.
  • At the opposite of the spectrum from Tesla is Starbucks, the other company you wrote about in the book. Starbucks is a massive organization. That requires such a different kind of leadership, out of necessity. When you wrote about Howard Schultz, he was helping the company rebound from a rough stretch. How did he strategize about winning customers back? 
  • While we wait for Jon's answer, don't forget to check out Fast Company's other ebooks, Hacking Hollywood and Design Crazy.
  • I think one way to understand Howard Schultz's success is that he has never forgotten, not even for a moment, that he is in the hospitality business. He re-assumed the leadership helm of the company during the recession, when Starbucks' reputation and financial performance were really suffering. And so he did what he does best: Figure out how to reconnect with the consumer. I don't think with Schultz that there's any sense of playacting. He believes (and I think he's shown) that if Starbucks can do everything it possibly can to serve its customers a good cup of coffee, quickly, in a pleasant atmosphere (that it can serve them not coffee, to be more precise, but an experience, as he often puts it) than the company will succeed.

    So -- to use just one example -- Schultz went out of his way to buy these incredibly expensive espresso machines that were lower in height so that baristas could connect to customers as they're waiting. No detail was too small. And altogether, it worked.
  • We’re getting some great questions from readers about leadership style and how it affects a company’s culture.
  • We hear a lot of stereotypes about the Steve Jobs-type manager: mercurial, demanding, etc. Did you guys find examples in this collection of leaders who were defined by the opposite characteristics? Meaning: empathetic, quiet, forgiving, patient, etc.
  • When you meet Howard Schultz -- and we had several in-person conversations for this story in the book -- he is incredibly personable and easy to talk to. Put simply: A man who's very comfortable with himself, and with his work. But he's also very much the personification of Starbucks, I think. I say in my story that you get the feeling while talking to Schultz that if you asked him to make you a double machiatto he would go down the hall from his Seattle office and do so. So is he a Steve Jobs guy? I never met Jobs, but I'd have to say no.

    On the other hand, several people at Tesla described Musk to me as Jobs-like. He is demanding, exacting, relentless. Impatient, too. Talking to him gives you a bit of that sense -- but keep in mind that Jobs was notoriously charming, too. My impressions from talking with Musk is that he's thoughtful, driven, precise, and a kind of engineer's engineer. And that he drinks a lot of coffee. But he's not humorless; he's willing to make a joke -- or two.
  • One thing I'm curious about in terms of Elon Musk is the fact that he comes from a background which is standard for a tech entrepreneur (multiple startups, regular reliance on moonshots, etc.) but highly unusual for an auto executive. Did you think the corporate culture you encountered at Tesla resembled that of a tech firm more than that of an automaker? And was there anything about the corporate culture there that surprised you?
  • Let's take one more reader question about corporate culture, this one about Tesla's.
  • Great question. I've spent some time writing about car companies like Toyota and GM, and I'd have to say that Tesla is decidedly different—a hybrid, really, that merges the tech and automotive worlds. One thing that Musk and his CTO, J.B. Straubel, firmly believe is that being situated in Silicon Valley gives them a huge advantage over the traditional carmakers, simply because cars are increasingly differentiated by software and systems, and they (Tesla) have access to the best coders in the world in Palo Alto.

    Still, at the end of the day, this company still has to make stuff. And when you visit the Tesla factory you see that software alone can't win the day. They are making big, complicated machines. And they are trying to make them as perfect as they can be—at the very least, better than any cars that have come before. I don't really know if they will succeed in the long run; let's keep in mind that Tesla has only produced one truly successful car, the Model S, and the quantities are still quite small in comparison to the big automakers. But I think it's clear that they have (1) changed the car industry forever; and (2) gotten off to an incredible start and beaten all odds.

    What will forever impress me is whether they can succeed in 2015, when they are slated to bring out their first semi-affordable car, at around $40k. That will be something worth watching.
  • We’re out of time, but I want to thank everyone for dropping by to participate in today’s conversation. And I want to thank our guest, Jon Gertner, for sharing his insight on Elon Musk, Howard Schultz, and even Thomas Edison. You can check out Jon’s excellent work and other Fast Company stories with compelling leadership lessons in our new book, Breakthrough Leadership. 

    Check back at FastCompany.com for more live conversations. And tweet @FastCompany about the people and topics you’d like to see featured. 
    by Chuck Salter edited by Miles Kohrman 1/29/2014 6:13:12 PM
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[Photo: Reinhard Hunger for Fast Company]